Escape the tropical heat and colourful landscape of Asia and head over to pristine white Helsinki, Finland during winter. An occasional change of scenery is invigorating for the soul. January and February are the best times of the year to visit for a snowy white landscape while everything else is just dramatic.
If I had to choose between hot or cold climate, I’ll pick cold anytime and layer up. As I typed this piece at home in Singapore, perspiration trickled down my face. I looked out the window and I see bright blue skies, palm trees and lots of other foliage reminding me of Bali. Fan blasting at full power. Yet still hot. Made me miss my trip to Helsinki.
It was January 2018 and I flew up to Helsinki with a handful of other journalists on a media familiarisation trip with Small Luxury Hotels. I hadn’t been to Finland but have heard so much. And it was a destination on my list of cities to visit.
When someone mentions Finland, I think of Nokia, Finland vodka, Trov Jansson’s Moomin character, music composer Jean Sibelius and Marimekko.
With snow, you could skate. Ice skate at the Jääpuisto Ice Park Skating Rink at Rautatientori Square. The square is surrounded by architecture including the central railway station, the Ateneum Art Museum and Finnish National Theatre. Those with brittle bones or aren’t as agile as they used to be can enjoy a coffee at the Jääpuisto cafe which overlooks the skating rink.
Suomenlinna World Heritage Site
You’ll have to make a day trip to Suomenlinna. Take a 15 minute boat ride from the Market Square in Helsinki to Suomenlinna. Enjoy the scenic view of the boat ride to this isolated island. The boat ride is also the fun part of the excursion. When you disembark at Suomenlinna, you land at the Jetty Barracks. Built in the Russian Era, the Jetty Barracks is the main gateway to the fortress.
The vaulted tin-roofed stone barracks was built in the 1968-70 to accommodate 250 soldiers in peace time. Part of the building was used as the main guard house with detention rooms and rooms for prisoners, guards and the duty officer. The barracks also housed a kitchen, men’s living quarters and lavatories.
Today the Jetty Barracks is where you can get information from the tourism information office. Suomenlinna Brewery and Restaurant, Jetty Barracks Gallery of the Helsinki Artists’ Guild and Viaporin Deli & Café are also at the Jetty Barracks.
Suomenlinna was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991 as a unique monument of military architecture. Construction of this fortress island began in mid 18 century when Finland was still part of Sweden. This popular visitor attraction is home to 800 residents. Did you know that the streets do not have names. Postal addresses consist of the letter of the island and the number of the house. Some 800,000 people visit Suomenlinna annually.
The Suomenlinna Church was built during the Russian regime by order of Czar Nikolay I as a military church. In the 1920s, during the early days of Finnish independence, it was consecrated on Christmas of 1918 and converted into a Lutheran church. The cupolas of the four small towers were pulled down a year later. Today, a light house continues to operate in the steeple of the church at 52 metres from sea level to serve both air and sea traffic.
The largest church bell in Finland is located on one side of the church in a separate tower. The bell weighs 6683 kg and was cast in Moscow in 1885.
The Great Courtyard was designed by Augustin Ehrensvärd and completed in the 1760s. It served as the main square but was badly damaged in the Crimean war in 1855. The memorial of Ehrensvärd is placed in the middle of the square. It was designed by King Gustav III of Sweden together with Augustin’s son Carl August Ehrensvärd and Johan Tobias Sergel. Augustine died in 1772 and was temporarily buried elsewhere for 10 years until the tomb in Viapori was completed.
Today the Great Courtyard is surrounded by homes and the Ehrensvärd Museum in the former Commandant’s House.
Fun fact: Finland has seven World Heritage Sites. The other six are Old Rauma, Petäjävesi Old Church, Verla Groundwood and Board Mill, Sammallahdenmäki Bronze Age Burial Site, Struve Geodetic Arc and Kvarken Archipelago.
Staying Warm in Helsinki
Visiting the Sauna
The Finns love to visit the Sauna. It is their national identity. There are over 3.3 million saunas in the country. It’s a daily affair here especially during the winter months. The Finnish sauna has been a place to care for the body and mind for over thousands of years. And it is common to see branches of leaves in curative bathing. Whisks are fresh twigs that can be made of birch, oak or eucalyptus. They are warmed up in hot water and are used to relieve muscle pain, cleanse the skin, increase blood circulation and help you recover from flu and colds. You gently whip the other person’s back, shoulders, arms and legs.
How to Enjoy Finnish Sauna
- Cleanse and refresh your body with a shower before the sauna
- Use the sauna naked. You can cover yourself with a towel if you do not feel comfortable naked in a mixed sauna
- Stay in the sauna for around 10 to 15 minutes so that you sweat
- If you happen to be closest to the bucket in the sauna, you would have to throw water on the stones to increase the heat
- Take a cold shower, or dip in an ice hole
- After showering, drink a glass of fresh water and repeat the above steps, remembering to give your body time to cool down
- When you are done, take a warm shower
- Enjoy some light food with drinks after
The Allas Sea Pool is located next to the market square in the centre of Helsinki. Opened in Spring 2016, its saunas, separated for males and females and three pools help you relax your body and mind. If you have not been to a sauna in Finland, do note that no one wears anything in the sauna. Not even a towel is brought in. Yes, no need to be shy. Enter the sauna fully naked.
After getting heated up in the Sauna, you can head over to the outdoor warm water pool. Do note that you can’t be naked in the mixed outdoor pools. If you are brave enough, you can also dip into the sea water pool, where water in the pool is pumped from farther away in the sea, from cleaner currents that is filtered and treated using a UV technique. In winter, the children’s pool is closed though. You can rent a robe for 10 € or large towel for 8.5 € from the Allas Lifestyle Shop to wrap yourself after you exit the pool and wear shoes to protect your feet at the pool area which is cold and often times slippery. Don’t make the mistake I made. Get two towels if you are not getting a bathrobe. One to bring along with you to the sauna and pool to dry off. And another for you to use after you shower.
And after all this you can then get yourself some food and hot drink from Allas Café and Terrace or Allas Bistro.
Drink Yourself Warm
Pick up a bottle or two of locally produced alcohol. Helsinki Distilling Company Tyrnipontikka‘s Vodka has a dry, sharp, light buckthorn berry notes that are spicy and broad containing 41.7% alcohol. Its distillery is located in Teurastamo, the former abattoir and now food culture heart of Helsinki. Besides Vodka, The distillery also produces Whisky, Gin, and other spirits.
Tom of Finland Vodka is crafted in Finland from the finest wheat, rye and the purest arctic water. This vodka is organic and does not contain sugar. Tom of Finland Vodka celebrates the life and art of Touch Laaksonen. He was the pioneer who dreamed 50 years ago and drew what the gay culture is today. The label bears the recognisable moustached male icon in black leather.
Kyrö Distillery Company was founded in August 2012 but manufacturing started in 2014. The distillery is in Isokyrö, 400km from Helsinki. It specialises in rye gin and rye whisky. Rye is consumed six times more than the world average in Finland and Rye Bread is the official national dish.
Napue Rye Gin is made with locally foraged fresh botanicals such as sea buckthorn, cranberries and birch leaves. Napue gin was voted “The World’s Best Gin for Gin & Tonic” by the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2015. In 2016, it won the gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirit Competition premium gin-series. 46.3% ABV in 500ml bottle, Napue Rye Gin is herbal and sweet, essential oils of meadowsweet and gentle citrus on the nose. Full bodied herbal flavour ending with notes of pepper of rye on the tongue.
Visit Bryggeri Brewery and Restaurant and have the sampler of its finest beers at Sofiankatu near Helsinki Senate Square. The food menu of uncomplicated pub food features elk sausages, duck legs, fried pike terrine, crispy fried Dijon pork, lamb sirloin and more. The beer is brewed with raw ingredients selected by Bryggeri’s brewmaster.
My favourite of the sampler was the Bryggeri Pils 4.5%. The German style pale lager beer is malty and balanced with a hoppy, dry and long lasting finish.
Reindeers and Santa Claus are synonymous with Christmas. In Rovaniemi, 811 km away from Helsinki, it’s Christmas everyday.
Santa and reindeers are also roaming freely at the White Reindeer Park in Espoo, Nuksio which is just a 47 minute drive away. These cute creatures feed on lichen, a composite organism of a fungus and algae or cyanobacteria.
Reindeer meat is also edible. In Helsinki, reindeer is sold as kebabs, sausages, steaks and minced meat.
Reindeer meat seems to be pretty popular but unfortunately I wasn’t adventurous enough to give it a try. Guess this is reason to visit Helsinki again . There’s also smoked Reindeer meat.
Reindeer chips are also easily available. I did try this and they were pretty good I have to say. Remember to get some and bring them home to share with friends and family.
Helsinki Senate Square and its surroundings make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. Senate Square is home to Council of State Building, University of Helsinki’s Main Building, National Library of Finland and the Helsinki Cathedral.
The statue of Emperor Alexander II on a pedestal surrounded by figures that depicts law, culture and peasants was erected in the centre of the Square in 1894.
The Helsinki Cathedral was originally built from 1830 to 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Today it is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki. Sculptures of the twelve apostles zinc sculptures guard the city from the roof of the church.
Helsinki Central Station
Helsinki’s Central Station is the main station for commuter and long-distance trains. The station is used by some 200,000 passengers daily. Approximately 400,000 people check the time when passing from the 48.5m high clock tower daily. The interior is a masterpiece of Art Deco.
Scenic Cafe Regatta
You want to drop by Cafe Regatta for a cuppa coffee and pastries such as cinnamon buns, blueberry pie or other delicacies because it is absolutely beautiful here. They are known for their Cinnamon Buns.
The traditional red cottage cafe is located by the lake close to the Sibelius Monument in Töölö. It is located just behind monument park. It has a rather fairytale feel.
Shopping for Food
The Old Market Hall
Helsinki’s Old Market Hall by Market Square is where you can get produce, smoked meats, fish, shellfish, cheese, vegetables, fruit and cakes, spices, coffee and tea. Here you can buy Cloudberry Juice to up your immunity system which is especially needed during winter.
Enjoy food and drink at Story, a Nordic Cafe and restaurant located in the middle of the Old Market Hall. Their philosophy is to make the most out of the fresh local ingredients, bought from the local food markets. Enjoy a bowl of Kermainen Lohikeitto, Restaurant Story’s classic Creamy salmon soup.
Or get one of Restaurant Story’s Burgers. I only go to eat at Restaurant Story’s other outlet at Koretteli, a new food hub in the heart of Helsinki.
And if you miss Asian food, there’s Hanoi Vietnam in the Old Market Hall. It serves Vietnamese dishes such as Pho, Banh Mi and salads as well as summer rolls stuffed with different fillings.
Stock up At Stockmann
The Stockmann Department Store in Helsinki is well stocked up with merchandise ranging from fashion, beauty, Finnish design, souvenirs, home and decor products, groceries, cafés and restaurants all under one roof.
We spent quite a bit of time at the supermarket food section as part of a “Fork In Hand” Food tour from Heather’s Helsinki with Heather Domeney around Helsinki’s city centre. Stockmann Department Store was our first stop.
The half-day tour will cost you 85 €. You will visit nine places on foot with an English speaking guide covering 5.1 km. There will be lots to eat and beer tasting at Bryggeri as part of the tour.
Cosy Up In Comfortable Accommodation
Hotel Lilla Roberts
Boutique hotel accommodation is the best way to enjoy the Finnish hospitality. Hotel Lilla Roberts showcases Scandinavian design and art deco in a peaceful side street and is located within walking distance to the market square.
There are 130 cosy rooms in six levels and two restaurants in this Small Luxury Hotels of the World hotel. The inner courtyard is perfect for a breather.
The breakfast here is spectacular. It was also where I discovered the orange-coloured cloudberry. It was a shot of juice that was supposed to be good for me. Cloudberry contains ellagitannins that prevents the growth of harmful intestinal bacteria, such as salmonella, staphylococci and campylobacter. It also contains high levels of Vitamin C. A good gut meant good health. It was one sour fruit though.
Hotel Haven is just five minutes drive from Hotel Lilla Roberts. It is the first member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group of hotels in Finland.
The hotel has 137 rooms with six different categories, three restaurants and a bar and conference rooms. It is located conveniently close to the Market Square. The chic bar at the lobby is great for a night cap to help you warm up for bed. You get spoiled with Byredo toiletries from Sweden when you stay here.
Qatar Airways operates daily flights from Singapore to Helsinki via Doha. Read about our flight experience here.